Conor Murray expects Scotland to ‘test us in every department’ when Ireland complete their Pool B campaign against Gregor Townsend’s side at the Stade de France on Saturday night.
It is crunch time as the Rugby World Cup’s pool stages come to an exciting climax, and Murray and his team-mates are determined to back up their winning performance against South Africa by sealing their quarter-final place.
With Scotland taking care of Tonga and Romania to move within four points of Ireland, both teams have everything to play for in Paris, while the Springboks, who overcame Tonga 49-18 in their final pool game, are still not confirmed quarter-finalists despite their 15-point haul.
Having no fixture last weekend allowed the Ireland camp to take some time away from the rugby bubble. Feeling ‘fresh’ after the few days’ break, Murray said the coaches strike ‘a really good balance between when to work you hard or give us a few easier sessions’.
They rounded off last week’s training schedule with an ‘intense’ session on Saturday morning, and were back in the gym today at Tours’ Complexe de la Chambrerie. There is no sense that Murray is tired of the Test rugby grind, if anything he is loving his rugby as much as ever.
“Being in this environment, you’ve heard every player say it, it’s a really enjoyable, competitive environment to be in. That brings out the best in you as players, and the coaching staff pushing us day in, day out,” said the 110-times capped scrum half.
“That’s one element, and the other, going into pre-season and knowing there was the opportunity to go to a World Cup.
“I’ve been very fortunate to have been at a few already (three), but the chance to go with this group and this management and coaching set-up, I knew it was going to be really exciting.
“The potential there is really exciting too. That’s probably something in the back of your mind that’s motivating you to push on.”
Murray is now the fourth most-capped international scrum half of all-time. Adding in his eight appearances for the British & Irish Lions, he has played 118 Tests. Only Australian great George Gregan (138), England’s Ben Youngs (128) and All Black Aaron Smith (122) are ahead of him.
Despite Jamison Gibson-Park’s emergence seeing him start less games for Ireland, the Limerick man is still a hugely important player and has shown plenty of poise and composure to help the team close out results in high-pressure scenarios.
He did so in the two Test wins over New Zealand during the summer of 2022, before starting against the Springboks last November, and he donned the number 9 jersey three times during the Grand Slam-winning run earlier this year.
He was only on the pitch for 15 minutes against the ‘Boks last time out, but threw 11 passes, made five tackles and won a key turnover at the breakdown. The 34-year-old is showing impressive form of late, whether that is as a starter or in an impact role.
I feel very good. I think having an opportunity to get a really good pre-season in has really helped and then, the whole squad at the moment, we’re near full fitness in terms of players across the board.
“I suppose it’s different to other World Cups where your role might be a little bit different, but coming on and trying to either steer the ship home or make an impact.
“Right now I feel good and that’s what you want to do, you want to come on and contribute positively to the team.”
If he is involved on Saturday, Murray will make his 17th Rugby World Cup appearance, equalling the Irish record which is jointly held by Brian O’Driscoll and Paul O’Connell, the team’s current forwards coach.
The Munster half-back was on the losing side when he first came up against Scotland at Murrayfield back in 2013. However, since that 12-8 defeat, Ireland have won twelve of the last 13 meetings with an average winning margin of 15 points.
Although they can take confidence from that enviable record, Murray says that those past results will count for little when the teams get out on the pitch and renew rivalries in the French capital.
“All those games, especially in the last few years, they’ve been very tight fixtures. Some of the scoreboards might read a little bit differently but genuinely Scotland are a top side and pose an awful lot of threats across the board.
“Having worked with Gregor a couple of years ago (when he was attack coach with the Lions), their attacking game is something which will cause a lot of stress and it’ll make sure we prepare really well, as good if not better as we did for South Africa.
“It’s about turning the page now and realising we’re up against a top international side that have an awful lot to play for.
“That record, I don’t think it counts for much. The same with our record, having been on a good run of form coming into this World Cup. Yeah, it’s nice to know, but it’s about what you do now once you’re in competition.”
He added: “We’ve had huge battles with Scotland over the years, especially recently. They’ve really developed their game and if you were Scotland, they said it afterwards, they were upset with the way they performed against South Africa.
“They didn’t show their best version of themselves. So, they’re in the Six Nations, we play them every year, we know how good they can be and we’re certainly not overlooking them. That might be the story outside (of camp), but I can assure you it’s completely different here.”